A Better Conversation to Have than the One about Trigger Warnings

We’re doing it wrong. Every time a new article comes out about trigger warnings, my librarian friend sends it to me with an unspoken tagline: “See?!” We talk about it, he airs his fears about censorship (librarians have plenty of reasons to fear censorship)…and then, every time, we reach an agreement. The reason is that trigger warnings are just the minutiae of the conversation about how schools can build and maintain an environment that enables as many different types of people as possible to learn. For vulnerable and marginalized populations, this can require some extra work. But talking about educational inclusion just in terms of trigger warnings makes the bigger idea way more controversial than it needs to be.

I want to touch on a few misconceptions. People who think trigger warnings “coddle” students are not the only ones who use these misnomers. If the higher education world is to have this conversation, let’s gather ‘round some common language.

• Let’s talk about the mythical “safe space.” As that one article in Feministing said, “THERE ARE NO SAFE SPACES.” We know this already. That article came out six years ago, and plenty of feminist and activist groups have already had hours upon hours of conversations about the reality that no space will ever be perfectly safe. That’s why the author of that article, Jos Truitt, offered the phrase “accountable space.” Many groups refer to them as “safer spaces.”

Apparently this conversation was had six years ago.

The general idea is that in a safer space, everyone present makes respect of others a priority. Usually a safer space is an intentional space, in which the group discusses what kind of an environment they would like to create, perhaps some ground rules of communication. The group also understands the process that happens if someone breaks the social contract.

• Let’s talk about censorship. Our fears of censorship can be traced back to Anthony Comstock, a postbellum Postal Inspector and lobbyist. He managed to get the Comstock Law passed in 1873, which banned the distribution of “evil reading” and “obscene literature” through the mail. He founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice that year, and its New England chapter went after such works as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Voltaire’s Candide. While his Society had dissolved by 1950, Cold War fear of content brought on investigations of comic books (they might turn your kids gay) and obscenity charges against the publishers of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

Anthony Comstock and his mortal enemy Allen Ginsberg

These things may seem ridiculous and scary now, but my librarian friend still has reason to fear movements to ban books. I mean, according to the American Library Association, the Harry Potter series is first on the list of “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books” from 2000 to 2009. So let’s be clear: no significant movement advocating for trigger warnings wants to ban content.

I’m not interested in the question of whether content is obscene, or even racist. That content could surely have pedagogical merit. The question is whether content might cause students such distress that they won’t be able to engage with it. Perhaps even more importantly, the question is also whether the teacher has the capacity to teach very controversial content. By all means, if a teacher is not able to lead a nuanced discussion about colonialism, they shouldn’t have their class consuming explicit content about colonialist violence. This really has nothing to do with Victorian notions of morality.

• Let’s talk about discomfort. In many ways, the difference between discomfort and being triggered is like the difference between challenging yourself to do one last pushup, versus just pushing too hard and tearing a muscle. One is an appropriate-level challenge that makes you stronger, the other takes you out for a week. On the other hand, discomfort can be a person’s body/brain telling them that something is seriously wrong.

I was graded on this shit. Illustration by me.

Not making these differences clear is dangerous. In my college dance major, the adage was that we should be “comfortable with discomfort.” In fact, I let myself be treated poorly by my teachers and peers for years. But I mistakenly just thought I was doing a good job of being “comfortable with discomfort.” I hate that quip.

• The last misnomer I’d like to touch on is the difference between being offended and being triggered. I am offended when someone insults my mother or says the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. I am triggered when videos of police brutality go on autoplay. The first makes me mad because it is an insult to my family’s dignity. The second makes me mad because it is an insult to my intellect and sense of justice. As a survivor of police brutality and police sexual assault, the last one puts my brain and body in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode.

Not only is the difference between offense/discomfort and being triggered felt with feelings, it’s also neurobiological. Being offended may be a totally warranted response to something problematic, but it’s not what trigger warnings are about.

A trigger is when something reminds your brain of this terrible thing that happened, something that altered your brain chemistry with enough permanence that the neurological connection between reality and traumatic memory brings you back to that “fight, flight, or freeze” mode more quickly than you can manage. For me now, it doesn’t mean I have a panic attack every time I’m reminded of it, but in the moment it’s distracting, and if it happens often enough it can bring on general anxiety, paranoia, and self-beratement. People experience a myriad of different responses to triggers, but it is not uncommon for people who have gone through trauma to have a similar heightened neurological response.

See? It’s science. Img originally from here.

I was not a student when these traumatic symptoms were at their worst, but I can tell you that if I were, trigger warnings alone would not have made sure I could be a functioning, contributing member of a class. This is one reason the conversation needs to be broader.

Recently, my librarian friend directed me to an article from October 2015 in Salon about a Lecturer who taught a “Sex and Film” course. It turned into a hellish situation for her, despite her giving every sort of trigger warning her class asked for. The article, by Rani Neutill, still fell into the canon of blaming everything on undergrads. But instead of The Atlantic’s white male demagoguery and scare tactics, it at least showed us a complex heuristic of a situation, one that I’ll use as a case study of sorts.

The article made it seem like the problem wasn’t really in what she did wrong, so much as what was missing. I like learning by asking questions, so I’ll ask some.

One question is that of administrative support. Did she have the support of her department in helping her deal with this classroom conflict? Were resources from other experts on the topic of sexual trauma made available to her? It seemed as though she went to one colleague, who just agreed with her that the students were annoying. Not so helpful.

I was in a grad school class that did something like this, too.

Was a positive class culture established? Was there some sort of “safer space agreement”? Students are much less likely to feel like their teacher is being unjust if they are given input in the creation of a social contract of sorts for the class. It can be useful to explicitly establish and elicit commitment to a basis of respect that everyone should expect to give and receive in the classroom. This can encourage students to be more maturely self-reflective about their communication style and their own reactions, and it can make sure students don’t feel shamed out of pointing out injustices or experiencing difficult psychological responses. Engaging the class in creating an intentional class culture is especially important for classes in which intense personal topics such as sexuality will be discussed.

If a student does bring up a concern, using deep listening skills is important. Things won’t go as well for either party if a teacher responds by explaining how they’re right — even if they’re right. This might be a sign of immaturity on the part of the student, but they’re in college to learn, and if the pedagogy that will reach them best is gentle, then so be it. I’d rather reach a student than assert a teaching method I wish worked.

If this is beyond the department’s expectation for teachers, then maybe that’s the role of an advisor. Regardless, it should be the role of somebody.

Some of these “coddling” articles reference teachers’ fear of their careers being ruined because they offended the wrong student. This is an administrative problem, not a student breach. Student and teacher concerns don’t have to be antagonistic. Teachers need administrative support if they are afraid of their students, and students need proper processes in place to engage in meaningful dialogue about things like trigger warnings and course content at their schools — processes other than just a penal system of grievances and complaints. That’s not dialogue.

Neutill wrote about a student who would regularly leave class crying. A student experiencing this regularly likely needs help. Surely there does come a point where a teacher really has done all they can be expected to do and a student still needs more in order to feel included. Even if a student misplaces blame, they still deserve compassion and mental health resources. It would be offensive to devalue a student’s emotional life by calling a reaction like this an example of being offended by or uncomfortable with course material. It makes sense that a teacher would be bitter if they feel like they have to navigate this alone.

In Fall 2014, I did an intensive volunteer training with Sexual Assault Support Services (SASS), an organization here in Eugene, OR. They would tell us what was coming up next class and give trigger warnings. Once, when we were going to watch a particularly prickly video, they said there would also be a trained person right by the door so that if you needed to leave and talk to someone, you could. I used that service at one point in the class. We just went out in the hall and talked for a little. It made me feel able to go back in and engage with the material.

On the one hand, that may seem way over the top for a normal college class. On the other, PTSD is a diagnosable mental health issue and in some spheres considered a disability. If we’re going to give people with disabilities “reasonable accommodations,” we could stand to be more creative about how to enable students with PTSD to earn degrees.

See? There are lots of them. Img originally from here.

Getting caught up on trigger warnings is like getting caught up on handicap parking spaces. Do ramps, elevators, and sign-language interpreters cause undue strain on professors? Like my librarian friend, I care about the already-overworked and religious censorship, too. A discussion of important educational accessibility solutions can address these concerns along the way.

The point of trigger warnings is not to allow everyone to stay in their blankets and their bubbles. The point is to prevent anyone from feeling excluded from a real academic discourse — one that makes space for the oppressed and vulnerable to sit at the table — one that allows for diverse views, not just the views of a thick-skinned majority. If we keep this in mind and broaden the conversation to one about supporting both students and teachers in navigating the realities of PTSD and tough-but-important content, trigger warnings won’t seem so controversial after all.

This article is cross-posted on my personal blog, Arts ’n’ Maths.
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